Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan may be in prison, but he has still the commanding support of the Pakistani public. According to a just-released survey by Gallup Pakistan conducted in June, Khan holds a 60 percent approval rating, surpassing his major rivals by 24 points or more.
Khan remains Pakistan’s most popular politician, despite the efforts of the Pakistani Army to dismantle his party. Indeed, if free and fair elections are held in Pakistan, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) could come out on top.
Khan’s once-friendly relations with the army soured in early 2022 when the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, backed his removal from power through a vote of no confidence. Rather than fade away, Khan took to the streets and social media with a narrative that leveraged public grievances against corruption and poor governance as well as the interference of the army and the United States in Pakistani politics.
Khan’s popularity has only since soared. So too has inflation, battering the general public — and their view of his political rivals.
On November 3, 2022, Khan survived an assassination attempt — the investigation of which has been stifled by the army and the then-coalition government.
On May 9, 2023, paramilitary forces violently arrested Khan from the premises of the Islamabad High Court. His followers came out in protest. Some engaged in violence that saw the destruction of military property. The violence provided the army with a pretext to neutralize Khan’s PTI.
Since May 9, the army and intelligence services of Pakistan have used various tools of coercion, including repeated arrests and sexual blackmail, to force the resignation of senior and mid-level figures in Khan’s PTI. The campaign against Khan’s PTI crescendoed on August 5 when he was arrested and summarily convicted on charges related to the alleged concealment of wealth.
Importantly, the Gallup Pakistan survey was conducted as the army was going all out in its campaign to dismantle Khan’s PTI. The resilience of the ex-cricketer’s popularity represents a conundrum for the Pakistan Army, which rules the country today through a caretaker government and is under pressure to hold general elections.
The Specter of a PTI Election Sweep
Constitutionally, general elections must be held by November, but the army-backed Election Commission of Pakistan has said that polls would be held in the last week of January.
If elections are held, the army faces the prospect of Khan’s PTI gaining a plurality, or even a majority, of National Assembly seats, positioning the party to be able to form a government.
As the numbers below show, Khan and his PTI have strong public support. But strong, viable candidates are also key to translating that support into votes on election day. If and when elections are held, Khan’s PTI may not have so-called “electable” candidates among its ranks. Yet Khan has shown the ability to defy expectations over the past 16 months. He could break precedent.
Khan’s party dominates across Pakistan.
- A plurality of those polled — 42 percent — say they’d vote for Khan’s PTI if general elections were held next week. That’s 22 points higher than the next party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).
- PTI’s support is nationwide: it leads in all four provinces, though just by a hair in the Sindh province.
- PTI has a commanding lead in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPK) bordering Afghanistan, continuing to defy its historical trend of anti-incumbency. KPK represents a reliable electoral base for PTI.
- The party has made deep inroads into the bases of the country’s other two major parties — the PML-N and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — which have been reduced to regional parties. In other words, Khan’s PTI is Pakistan’s sole national party.
Dissatisfaction is high nationwide, driven by economic troubles.
- Seventy-seven percent of Pakistanis are dissatisfied with the direction of their country. These figures are particularly high in the province of Sindh, where dissatisfaction with the country’s direction is at 87 percent.
- Pakistanis are hurting financially. Nearly 70 percent of Pakistanis say the economy is bad or very bad. And a whopping 89 percent say inflation is a serious problem. (Inflation peaked at close to 40 percent earlier this year, but remains high at around 30 percent.)
- Corruption, poverty unemployment, and high electricity prices are also major issues for the Pakistani public. The current caretaker government is compelled to raise electricity prices to preserve a vital International Monetary Fund program. In other words, discontent driven by the rising cost of living will persist.
Gamechanger in Sindh?
- In terms of public approval, PTI is now on equal footing in Sindh with the late Benazir Bhutto’s PPP, which has long dominated the province. But Sindh has struggled to recover from last year’s catastrophic floods, in part due to corruption and misgovernance, which have plagued it for decades.
- The Gallup Pakistan survey lists Pakistan’s sixteen most popular politicians. Neither of the PPP’s top two officials — Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his father Asif Ali Zardari — even appear on the list. In other words, their approval rating is so low — somewhere in the single digits — that they could not make the cut.
- Some in the army see Bilawal Bhutto Zardari as a future pliant prime minister. To pave the way for his rise to power, the inexperienced politician was made Pakistan’s foreign minister following Khan’s ouster. His time would have been better spent focusing on reforming governance in Sindh, where human development indicators — including basic literacy and child mortality rates — are appalling.
The Bottom Line
The Pakistan Army may have the ability to coerce, but it can no longer convince. Its strong-arm tactics to neutralize Khan as a political force have backfired. He’s as popular as ever. And his opponents — both civil and military — have little they can do about it. For Khan’s rivals, election day may end up being a day of reckoning.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.